By popular choice

Published July 24, 2015
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

COMPARISONS are hard to avoid and even more difficult to wrap up without some kind of a final settlement. And once a comparison begins, there is no end to the predictions.

In the wake of the grand popularity surge for Gen Raheel Sharif, there is someone in Lahore every now and then setting a deadline for change. There are no details, only a knowing nod meant to promise and reassure.

This is how it has been for some time, even amid growing evidence of a PML-N government overcoming some odds which ought to make it stronger. Still, the talk about the need for new leadership goes unabated, even when between the previous Eid and this one the harbinger of change has been replaced.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was destined to be eclipsed by the army chief.

A year or so ago, those in Lahore who didn’t approve of the Sharif brothers’ rule had in a majority of cases placed their bets on Imran Khan. The skipper has since been dropped in favour of a more forthcoming and more empowered Gen Raheel Sharif. Any further developments in which Mr Khan is seen to be blocked – such as a judicial commission report that does not favour his cause – is going to add to Gen Sharif’s appeal as the only likely change-maker.

The general’s rise has been swift. For a brief period after the dharna in Islamabad was called off, it seemed to some that the old PML-N alliance with the army had been restored. That the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) had failed to get from the military the relief it was looking for brought back the old grand theories about Mian Nawaz Sharif’s ‘natural’ bonding with the military, established meticulously over time under the tutelage of Gen Ziaul Haq.

The PML-N government was thought to have left the worst behind it and was certified to not be threatened with any imminent danger. But considering how much history and common sense was invested in the theory, the moment passed all too quickly. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was destined to be eclipsed by the army chief.

The old theory was replaced by new ones, many of which sought not to unduly disturb the visible sensitive balance with the military the Sharif government had managed to ‘restore’. The agreement was that Gen Sharif was a rival of Prime Minister Sharif’s choosing in public gallery. With a quick recall of his past it was decided that PML-N leaders were once again willing to live by an illusion of power while the real authority rested elsewhere — so long as it kept Mr Khan at bay. Thus the most talked about of the explanations was that which projected the prime minster as a satisfied junior partner to Gen Sharif.

No longer could the prime minister be cast in the mould of the reformer who had been vowing regional economic — and political — turnaround. He could well claim credit for some of the development projects that were being initiated in the country, but the highlights on any given day featuring any part of the country routinely belonged to the military, and more particularly to the leader of the army.

From the advance against terrorism and militancy to the action to bring order in Karachi – there was initially some effort on the part of the prime minister to claim credit for progress towards improvement. Of late it seems that the political, elected government is not too eager to remind people of its presence and its abilities. The emphasis is on reminding everyone around that it backed whatever steps the army considered necessary.

There have been plenty of opportunities for the army to seize the initiative. The system is so weak and so useless that it encourages the decision-makers of its own making to look for short cuts. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif is one of the most recognised applier of this short-cut rule; his dilemma is that each time he suspends the principle to get the job done, he is further discrediting the system that has brought him to power.

By contrast, the military, which by all media projections is a PML-N rival for popularity, is hailed for taking prompt action. Much before that, at an original level, the army’s leadership wins the basic test of existing at close proximity to the people.

Eid is yet another example of how politicians leave themselves exposed to the media which is increasingly finding reason to compare their idle lot with the efficiency offered by the military under Gen Sharif’s command. To begin with, it was a question of proximity: the politicians choosing to spend the holiday in foreign lands whereas the ‘real’ chief chose the occasion to go to the forward posts against militancy.

The trajectory makes it abundantly clear that this is going to be a one-sided show in favour of Gen Sharif. What remains to be seen is the impact the repeated humiliation of the elected leadership and the politicians generally is going to have on the Pakistani theory about the army settling for a less prominent ruling role than it was frequently tempted to take up in the past.

The debate is on about just how thinly veiled military control is of proceedings in the country right now. However, while there is a strong view which declares that times have changed and new, subtle methods to wielding power have been evolved, some basic questions about human behaviour continue to agitate the typically curious and typically fed Pakistani mind. What effect will the appreciation and the praise and vows of loyalty have on a most-popular individual who is hailed as a saviour now and a saviour for times to come – a leader with no equal in the land? Wouldn’t his increasing popularity intensify demands for him to intervene for a deeper, wider, longer period, even more openly than he is doing now? Or is it that the comparison is an end enough and not a means to something bigger? If that is so, it will be in defiance to growing public demand.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2015

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